Beyond bungled bullying: How to make N.L.'s political theatre less absurd
After a raucous caucus meltdown, MHAs have some problems to resolve in their own backyard
Fresh off four days of sensitivity training, MHAs head back to the House of Assembly on Monday energized with a new sense of civility after witnessing the government's raucous caucus meltdown that cost two ministers their jobs.
In the interest of embracing a new political culture that equates group hugs with consensus building, let's dive into what happened during the so-called "bullying scandal" and what its aftermath could mean for the future of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Let's remember that the two male cabinet ministers who were expelled last year — former education minister Dale Kirby and former municipal affairs minister Eddie Joyce — were never found guilty of bullying or harassment.
In fact, the experts hired for such matters Rubin Thomlinson (the law firm that investigated and blasted the CBC for ignoring a certain "hands on" national radio host) cleared both Kirby and Joyce of every accusation.
We still don't know what the experts determined, however.
Their reports remain secret.
Kirby and Joyce — both known for their aggressive style — were expelled prior to completion of the investigations which, in the end, found them guilty of the lesser offences of breaching the MHAs' code of conduct.
Commissioner for Legislative Standards Bruce Chaulk had problems with Kirby smoking dope and saying inappropriate things to fellow MHA Pam Parsons; Joyce was bounced for flogging a pal's resume to cabinet colleague Sherry Gambin-Walsh.
Whatever you think of either politician, keep this in mind: the accused, the so-called victims (whose accusations were dismissed), and even the premier — everybody agrees the process in the legislature for looking into bullying and harassment remains deeply flawed.
Joyce insists he was never interviewed
In Joyce's case, to dive into the weeds for a moment, the MHA for Humber-Bay of Islands tells me that he was never interviewed for his side of the story.
Joyce says he was able and available and given that Chaulk would find wrong-doing, Joyce insists he should have been interviewed.
Chaulk will not talk about specifics, but he did tell me the law governing his investigations "allows a person to make representations in person, in writing, or through a lawyer."
Joyce did submit a lengthy brief. Perhaps the commissioner thought that was sufficient. Sources within the House's Management Commission inform me Chaulk did tell some MHAs that Joyce was unavailable to be interviewed — a claim Joyce says he can prove to be false.
Perhaps on account of their abrasive natures, neither Kirby nor Joyce garnered much sympathy. A certain widespread schadenfreude — an enjoyment of someone else's misery — appears to have led many people to conclude "they got what was coming."
And yet, consider this: between the two accused men, none of the 15 accusations of harassment and bullying was deemed to have any merit.
Both men say their reputations have been damaged and they have suffered financial penalties by virtue of their cabinet evacuations.
Kirby is pursuing a legal route to get the experts' report that clears them made public.
Joyce wants Chaulk to apologize — and to explain why he never gave him the courtesy of an in-person interview.
So what, if anything, will be different this session?
The Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections is supposed to find a better way for the House of Assembly to act on complaints.
And, by "better," its members would like to take future bullying investigations away from Bruce Chaulk (who is also the province's chief electoral officer) and move the responsibility to the Office of the Citizen's Representative where such matters, they say, would be entirely confidential.
A laudable goal, perhaps, but one that perhaps ignores the reality that when politicians feel hard done by, or unjustly treated, they tend to leak details to reporters with varying degrees of ambition.
About that sensitivity training …
So far, all we have to show for last year's political theatre of the absurd is the scarcely reported sensitivity training MHAs have happily accepted or endured.
The four-day sessions are mandatory and MHA who opt out face censure. There is a kind of "do it …or else" message to MHAs, which carries its own irony, given that its origins are in anti-bullying education.
Several MHAs tell me much of the information at these sessions is fairly self-evident. For example, politicians need to be aware about how alcohol can adversely modify behaviour.
From last October, see how Eddie Joyce responded to Bruce Chaulk's report about him
Others wonder if a team-building exercise involving dropping a rubber egg from 10 feet into a pile of straws offers much practical "sensitivity" insight. However, they also say some of the training has been helpful but that the four days could easily be cut down to two.
Interestingly, Joyce and Kirby opted for individualized training. That means they have together been through a kind of tandem sensitivity-enhancing experience to make them better MHAs.
Don't forget: This is an election year
Perhaps the real question, especially in an election year when politicians compete against each other to retain their jobs and either keep or lose power, is: In an adversarial parliamentary system how do we distinguish between confrontation and bullying?
Realistically, when MHAs compete for who gets a couple of million dollars for this road, or that medical clinic, or this ferry — for the ability to deliver the goods, please constituents and get their votes — is it naive not to expect elbows up?
It remains unclear how we can rid our system of aggressive, confrontational behaviour which may either appear like bullying and harassment, or cross the line and become recognizable as genuinely hostile, and threatening in a either a physical or psychological sense.
Many of the bullying accusations against Kirby and Joyce (made by both male and female MHAs) were of a certain nature: "He raised his voice at me," "he glared at me," "he said he couldn't work with me," "he didn't take me seriously," "he said I wasn't supportive" and so on. The overall tenor of Chaulk's ruling for the bulk of the complaints can be summarized as: "Hey folks, this is not abnormal in party politics."
From last November, see Eddie Joyce apologize in the House of Assembly
Like it or not, our political system invites and encourages confrontation, as well as sharp arguments and disputes.
Every party has whips to enforce discipline, and let's remember that the mace — the symbol of the authority of the house — is a golden weapon, a great big medieval club.
Eradicating everybody's notion of bullying maybe be an unreachable ideal in a system with incorporated hostility..